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Somalia, nation of spies

During the day, Mohamed Mahmoud counts the African Union peacekeepers in his neighborhood and notes their locations. At night, he gives the information to his handlers in the radical al-Shabab militia, undermining the US-backed government the peacekeepers support.

world Updated: Sep 15, 2010 00:54 IST
Sudarsan Raghavan

During the day, Mohamed Mahmoud counts the African Union peacekeepers in his neighborhood and notes their locations. At night, he gives the information to his handlers in the radical al-Shabab militia, undermining the US-backed government the peacekeepers support. “We are everywhere,” he said.

In the deadly contest for the capital, spies like Mahmoud work in the shadows of this failed state's civil war. The militants they assist have weakened the government and limited its ability to protect the population, tactics used by insurgents in Baghdad, Karachi and Kabul.

“We're fighting one war in the open, and another war below the surface,” said Abdiraheem Addo, a military commander. Conversations with spies and former spies in Mogadishu provide a rare look into how al-Shabab, designated a terrorist organization by the US, operates in government-controlled areas.

Mahmoud, 41, lives in Hamarwane, a neighborhood near the port. A father of 10, he said al-Shabab pays him $100 a month and helps with his rent and food.

“I don't do this for money,” said Mahmoud, who has a beard but no moustache and was wearing a traditional tan garment and brown sandals. “I believe in everything al-Shabab stands for.”

The militia has as many as 1,000 spies living in government areas, many in strategic places near the airport, port and the presidential palace, he said. Cells also operate in mosques and Quranic schools.

The militia allows their spies to have fashionable haircuts and smoke cigarettes “so that the government won't suspect they are al-Shabab,” Abdullahi, a former informant, said. In Shabab areas, such practices are punishable by lashes. He described men like Mahmoud as part of “the most important division of al-Shabab.”

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